AT&T, iPhone and the Edge of Weird

Last week, The New York Times reported that, due primarily to iPhone
usage that AT&T 3G bandwidth gets so flooded that during “peak” hours,
it is virtually impossible to get a signal in New York, San Francisco
and a number of other major cities. I have not experienced any such
trouble in Cambridge but I haven’t crossed the river into Boston
during any of those hours either.

Although dropped and virtually non-existent signals present a high
degree of problematic behavior for the iPhone user, we should take a
look at the cause. No other technology product that I can remember
has held a buzz for as long and as loud as the iPhone. In the first
few days the lines spanning blocks in major cities and suburban malls
alike would make one think that a new Beanie Baby had hit the
streets. In the summer of 2009, the iPhone 3G S became the king of

The iPhone, however, goes well beyond cool rims for the SUV, a
Rolex, and most other truly ornamental but cool objects that fashion
followers buy. AT&T wouldn’t have their signal slammed if the iPhone
was just another high tech gadget that people could show their friends
and enjoy the envy.

Smart phones have been around for quite some time. Most fell into one
of two camps: Windows Mobile or Symbian, two competing and
incompatible operating systems for handheld devices. Then came Apple
with the iPhone and, as if by magic, the whole marketplace got tossed
on its ass.

Why didn’t perfectly good AT&T Windows phones like the Blackjack 2
cause the usage meters to ring tilt? Why didn’t the Nokia N82, the
most powerful and memory laden handset on the market shut down the
grid? The answer is: people bought them but, due to their very
clunky, desktop simulator interfaces, people hardly used any of the
features or added more applications onto these devices. Some people
used the music player features but little else in the now not-so-smart
phone market.

Apple, long known for its excellent designs actually made a phone with
an interface that one, sighted or blind alike, not just can use but
that they actually do use. With so much a tap, flip or rotator away,
a user is watching a YouTube video, downloading a new album, sending
a text message, checking the weather for their current location and a
plethora of other web based tasks, that add up to a whole lot more
bandwidth than one would use on the clunky Windows or Symbian based
operating environments.

So, AT&T is crippled by the major advances in smart phone user
interface on the Apple iPhone. I can attest to the fact that I use my
iPhone at least ten times as much as I did my other handsets as the
things I want to do are right in my face and, for the majority of
programs I’ve encountered, are also accessible.

The iPhone 3G S marks a transformative moment in the world of mobile
devices in general and telecommunications in particular. Apple rules
the day.

Some other AT&T and maybe Apple issues that annoy me: If I try to buy
and download an application of more than 10 megabytes, I get a
dialogue telling me to switch to WiFi. I’m paying for unlimited data
service from AT&T and that’s what I want. Of course, my WiFi network
is much faster but its the principle we’re talking about here.

The New York Times article included a number of other features that
AT&T is delaying lest they make the bandwidth worse. I don’t care
about most of them but I was looking forward to using tethering while
we drove back south to Florida at the end of the month.

Thus, we still don’t have all of the features and the awesome Apple
design is already killing the AT&T capacity. This, in a bizarre way,
is really cool just to observe such a tectonic shift in such a huge

Back during the hateful George W. Bush administration, At&T admitted
that it spied on American citizens for the government. President
Obama has not ruled out spying on Americans so, the following bit of
very weirdness gave me pause the other day:

Because of the work I do, I need to be in contact with people around
the world. Sometimes Skype isn’t good enough so I went to the AT&T
customer page and checked that I wanted them to turn on International
dialing. The web site reported that I had to call a number so I did.

The phone was answered by some sort of phone-bot and I sat on hold for
about a half hour – keep in mind that all I want to do is sign up so I
can pay AT&T more money every time I dial a number in Asia.

Finally, a cranky woman came on the line and started interrogating
me. This was far more than the last four digits of my social security
number or mother’s maiden name; I was asked questions like, “Where
were you living when your Social Security card was issued?” “Have you
ever held a job in Biloxi, Austin or Durango, Colorado?” “How often
did you leave the United States in 2009?” “Have you ever lived in
Pennsylvania?” And they continued with personal questions that, as
far as I can see it, they should not know the answers.

I had my radical days when I was young. I sang for an anarcho-punk
band, attended demonstrations, got arrested more times than I’d like
to recall but I have never been a spy. Although Margaret Atwood wrote
an excellent novel called, “The Blind Assassin,” and I personally know
blinks at CIA and NSA, I’m really not good at subterfuge nor secrecy,
my life is a pretty open book and, if you read through the past few
years of blog entries, you’ll see that I admit to almost everything
short of the Kennedy cover-up, no grassy knolls in my history, I

Why then is AT&T giving me the third degree just so I can call my
charter accountant in New Delhi? It simply boggles the mind.

Of course, my mind is boggled by AT&T on my very kick-ass iPhone which
does kind of soften the blows.

— End

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Apple Releases OSX 10.6, Snow Leopard Edition

As Apple gives all of its OSX releases a cute wild cat name, everyone
who writes professionally, as a hobby, on mailing lists, in blogs, on
Face Book and virtually anywhere that one can publish text, they use
some sort of silly kitty related cliche in their title. I, therefore,
in this, the first Blind Confidential story since I pulled it out of
mothballs, have elected to use the most boring but descriptive title I
could think of on a single cup of coffee.

As the title asserts, Apple has released the latest version of its OSX
operating system and, as a consequence of the two being intertwingled,
a new version of its VoiceOver screen reader. As a general computer
user, SL -proves to increase the speed of the Intel based Macintosh
computers and does so in a highly perceptible manner. SL also
contains a lot of cool goodies and if you are interested, I recommend
reading any of the bazillion reviews in mainstream press. I
especially liked the New York Times review as it actually mentions
VoiceOver and the features for people with disabilities.

Since its release on Friday, I’ve been using SL and the new VO but
other pressing activities have kept me from doing anything like a
thorough investigation of the software. Thus, I give you my immediate
impressions and suggest, if you are looking for a whole lot of user
feedback, that you search for other VoiceOver related blogs and
mailing lists of which there seems to be new ones popping up daily.

VoiceOver, however, adds far more than performance improvements to
the world of people with vision impairment who use computers. For a
comprehensive list of such features, go to the Apple web site and go
to the Snow Leopard accessibility pages for a long and highly
informative read.

To begin with, the Apple accessibility team fixed a whole bunch of
bugs. While I’m sure I will find a few over time, all of my favorites
are gone and I won’t miss them.

Apple has added a VO preference setting to allow one to turn off its
pathological insertion point related speech and turn on the insertion
point speaks the item to its right (a Peter Korn invention from back
in his days making outSPOKEN) it can now, for people who have used
virtually any other screen reader, speak items at the caret as they
would expect. A few hardcore Macintosh worshippers say that the way
VO spoke the contents at the cursor is how “sighted people perceive
its location,” a notion that is pure bunk as, when the insertion point
visually sits between two characters or words, its location is
ambiguous – it is both to the left of one character and to the right
of another. Peter and his team back in the cave man days of screen
reading saw this ambiguity and selected to speak the item to the right
as, to a screen reader user, the notion of “between” is a very
difficult or even impossible one to convey with any efficiency.

One of my favorite new behaviors in VoiceOver is its extensive use of
sounds and TTS attribute changes to denote a lot of different actions
a screen reader user may take. Other screen readers may have
different or altered speech when changing cursors but Apple provides
special sounds when one is moving backward or forward (among lots of
other things) that are really nice and they have definitely moved from
the 1 dimensional sequence of syllables and pauses into a 2D sequence
of syllables, pauses and audio effects providing an interface far more
rich than I’ve used before.

When one first starts the new SL, its verbosity is set to “high” and
the user will hear a whole lot of new information. For a user new to
VO or one who is an infrequent user, these augmentations are terrific
as they help guide a user through a sometimes complex world
translating a very visual environment to one that can be reasonably
navigated by a blink with relative efficiency. Some of these
enhancements are pretty verbose and can be turned off if a user finds
them to waste time.

The new VO adds a number of features, like nice table navigation, that
it probably should have had in the past. It also adds some very cool
new features to enhance web browsing and, in my not at all humble
opinion, makes many web sites work as well or better than JAWS, the
reigning champion.

Snow Leopard and VO add the ability to use a multi-touch pad to
navigate data on the screen. I do not have one of these track pads
yet but I have been using the iPhone with its version of VO and its
multi-touch gesture based interface and, once one grows familiar with
it, they will find all sorts of advantages to being unbound by the
keyboard and cursor keys. I’ve heard other blinks report on this new
feature in SL and look forward to getting the appropriate hardware to
use it.

I don’t want to repeat a lot of stuff you can find in the
documentation or in lots of other blog poses out their in the
blinkosphere. I do however want to discuss the economics of this
upgrade as it compares to other systems accessible to those of us with
vision impairment.

NVDA and orca, because they are GPL, free as in freedom with a lower
case “f,” software never have an upgrade price. System Access
announced at one of the conferences earlier this year (ATIA or CSUN)
the “death of the SMA” and have stopped charging for upgrades. The
screen readers with the largest number of users, JAWS (with an
overwhelming worldwide market share) and Window-Eyes (a distant
second) both charge a hefty sum when they ship upgrades to the
software. If one has an SMA to JAWS Professional, the FS yearly
upgrade costs them one half of the SMA price or something over a
hundred dollars. I don’t recall the GW Micro upgrade policy but it is
similar to FS in terms and costs.

One thing I can say for sure is that the Windows screen readers with
upgrade and SMA charges will take one of these expensive upgrades from
their users in order to run Windows 7.0 when it is released. Thus,
users will need to pay MS for the OS upgrade and FS or GW for their AT
upgrade, putting them somewhere in the $300 range.

Snow Leopard, though, came with a $29 price tag for both the OS and
the VoiceOver upgrade all on a single DVD. No, I didn’t leave out a
digit, SL, VO together cost $30 or roughly 10% of the market leaders.
I also cannot recall a screen reader upgrade with as much new stuff as
VO coming out in years (if pushed, I’d probably say JAWS 3.5 but
others will have their favorites as well).

The SL version of VoiceOver introduces the ability to write scripts to
tweak the performance of the screen reader and to allow for
communication directly to other applications. This powerful tool is
exposed as AppleScript, a widely used and long included scripting
language on the Macintosh with a bazillion people who understand it
and tons of examples out in the real world one can use for reference.
There are also a lot of AppleScript tutorials of varying value that
one can find with a google search. This, in a way, echoes the GW
Micro approach to scripting by using a feature built into the OS
rather than sticking to an ancient proprietary system that will have
problems every time a new version of the screen reader is released.

If one decides today to go out and buy a new Macintosh and want to use
a screen reader, they can go to their favorite Apple store, Best Buy,
and other vendors and, for around $800 – approximately the price of
a Windows screen reader – they can walk away with the only platform
that a blink can configure entirely from its first start up forward.
The Macintosh will start VoiceOver if it perceives that a new owner
has taken too long to interact with the initial dialogue – very
slick. Macintosh has no long locking code so one needn’t find a
sighted person or call MS for the Windows upgrade nor, if they do not
read Braille, need to find said sightie or call FS to get their copy
protection working and their system talking. So, a blink buys a Mac,
brings it home, plugs it in, hits the on button (all things I was able
to do sort of by instinct when I got my MacBook a year or so ago),
wait a minute or so and start hearing the screen reader talk, asking
you if you want a brief VO tutorial or to continue with the new
computer set up. This is super slick and avoids all of the
aforementioned hassles inherent in platforms that insist on copy
protection and relying on third parties to make screen readers rather
than building them into the OS.

Needless to say, I’m impressed with Snow Leopard and especially with
the new revision of VoiceOver. Give it a spin at an Apple store and
see if you may like it too.


I am out of practice writing extemporaneous blog posts so please
forgive the clunky prose above.

— End

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back by Popular Demand

Well, rumors spread by me in the last item I wrote for BC that it was
going away turned out to be quite premature. I did close that item
with a statement that we might be back and, two and a half months
later, I’m writing here again.

I received a whole lot of emails from a wide variety of different
people asking me to take Blind Confidential out of mothballs and here
it is. We’re back, we’re fat and we hope to have some fun again.

In the short term, readers can expect more in the “Eating an Elephant”
series as well as a bunch of stuff about accessibility on Apple
devices as I’ve spending a lot of time with them and enjoy quite a lot
of the accessibility aspects of these very cool toys.

I will also be talking about various free software and open source AT
projects as I believe that it is very important for the end users and
not the bean counters to ultimately control our destiny and, as far as
I can see it, open source is the only way to go.

Finally, I’ll probably be writing about software patents as the League
for Programming Freedom ( is making a comeback and
I’m on its board so I’m reading a lot about IP law.

I can’t say when I will post the first new article. Some people asked
me to start a twitter thing but I can’t figure out what I could say of
any value in a sentence or two. Maybe twitter would be good as it
could help me with brevity.

— End

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It’s Been Fun

Over the past few months, I have received a bunch of private email
asking where BC was hanging out and when we could expect him to
return. Well, after a long stay away from writing articles for this
blog, BC has decided to move on and let BlindConfidential fade away
into blinkosphere lore.

Boris, Sam and, of course, Gonz and there friends will be moving to a
new space dedicated to the weird world of gonzo journalism from which
they arose. I’m not certain when or where they will return but I will
probably create two new blogs: one for the gonzo stuff and the other
for creative writing pursuits (articles like the Snow Bird’s Tale,
Actors Inside, etc.).

For the three years that I ran this blog, I have had an awful lot of
fun. I’ve made a lot of new friends from the online community and,
very sadly, lost a few resulting from things I wrote in these pages .
As I have said many times in these pages before, I write them off the
top of my head, usually in the morning while somewhat caffeine
deficient. Also, I’ve had my share of mood swings over the years and
have written some pretty hurtful things from a false sense of self-
importance and righteous indignation. I’m not sorry for anything I
wrote here (except for the one I actually removed by request of the
CEO of one of the AT companies) but, upon rereading quite a number of
them, the tone and content could have certainly been more fair but,
alas, they are what they are . As I work toward getting the two
creative writing blogs in order, I will start removing items that fall
into the criticism and creative non-fiction categories from Blind
Confidential as most are woefully out of date and problems I discussed
have long ago maybe got fixed.

One long term reader asked me to write about the characters in the
Gonz articles, whom they are based upon and where and how I came to
invent them. I think this might disappoint a few people as it is
hardly outrageous:

Gonz Blinko is based on me if I was actually a far better writer and
had someway of having lived a life similar to that of the great Hunter
S. thompson. Gonz, in many ways is the he whom I wish I could have
been but the best I could do was let the Gonz inside speak out.

Boris Throbaum is a spoiled, whiney child of affluence. the
character in the Gonz stories was revived in name from that which I
used when I sang for the Corporate Pigs back in the 1980s when it was
pronounced “Throw bomb” and represented my anarchist leanings. In the
blinkosphere, Boris never went blind but he didn’t really accomplish
anything of value after his early twenties when he vocalized for a
punk rock band. Boris is the character who speaks for me when I feel
dark and dismayed.

Sydney “Sy” T. Greenbacks was not to satirize any particular company
CEO but rather speak from the most cynical crevasses of my mind.
Years ago in an FS executive staff meeting, it was me who pronounced
that war is good for the blindness business as shrapnel and eyes, when
combined appropriately, cause screen reader customers.

Samhara, Gonz’s gay lawyer was loosely based on Laslow Toth, Raoul
Duke’s (HSt) legal companion. Gonz, from the beginning needed a
sidekick and Samhara (the name of a favorite perfume of an ex-
girlfriend of mine) came into mind and, in my opinion, became one of
the most interesting characters.

Most of the other characters, typically made from their real world
names by changing a couple of letters in their names should be fairly
obvious. but feel free to write me about anyone you can’t figure out.

Like most authors, most of the Gonz stories came from some actual
event blown up to be enormous or some weird idea I may have had
sitting in a journal for years looking for a home.

There are lots of other blogs that cover the technology used by people
with vision impairment and now that I am out of that biz for about 5
years, I really cannot be relied upon as a source because virtually
all I use fits into a small set.

So, my fearless readers, if there is anything you want to keep from
this blog, get it now because sometime in the coming weeks, it will
start to disappear. If there are any articles you especially despise
that are not Gonz based, send me an email and I’ll put high on the
list to be eliminated early in the process.

Finally, as I’ve taken back many promises I’ve made in these pages,
there is some probability that BC will return in this spot and with
the current Blind COnfidential attitude.

Why the death? I have a full time gig and in my spare time I’m
working on a chapter for a friend’s textbook and a work of creative
non-fiction for a real life publishing company. Thus, I’m all written
out and simply cannot generate any spare energy for the blog.

I, with a triple shot vente late, salute you, my loyal readers and
thank you for your support over the years.

— End

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Writer’s Block

Thanks to all of you who have written wondering why Blind COnfidential
had disappeared for a number of months and why all of our BC
characters have gone silent. As a quik update: BlindChristian and his
lovely wife are holed up in an ashram some where in South India where
devotees are encouraged to smoke huge amonts of hashish and have sex
only on rare occasions, a situation not entirely like marriage in
general. Secretary Clinton appointed Gonz as embassador to
WhatsItStan and he and Samhara are hunkered down in a mud hut in an
obscure corner of Central Asia. Boris is acting like an ass and the
rest of the gang are up to their usual antics.

In reality, I’ve had the worst case of writer’s block that has hit me
in years. I have a pile of opening paragraphs, a bunch of cool
sentences in my bank of goodies to be used later and a number of plot
lines that just rumble around in my head. I haven’t even attended a
meeting of my creative writing club in months. I signed up for and
downloaded a writing course with lots of cool exercises from iTunes U.
that should shock the block out of me but, rather, give me a pile of
assignments that I feel guilty for not attempting – at least the
course came at no cost.

I had started writing about Raising the Floor (my new full time home
that you can read about at: and had
some amusing thoughts about simply lowering the elevator, alas, I
jotted a paragraph or two and could go no further.

If you are interested in the blindness aspects of rtF, it is being co-
chaired by Jamal Mazrui and me. We are just getting off of the ground
but all are welcome to join our BLV working group.

I did go to CSUN and started a Gonz Blinko story called “Bicycle Built
for Two” as Daisy dominated the conference. I had planned on calling
the LAX (pronounced lacks by screen readers) as the Ex Lax hotel and
the conference would be called Sea Sunk (look for the homophone). I
had a bunch of material piled up for a satirical view of the show but,
once again, it was as though my hands were tied whenever I started to
write anything beyond an email or other short item related to RTF.

I’m still blocking pretty hard and find that I’m surprised by finding
the energy to write even this much but, with hope, we’ll be generating
stories again soon.

— End

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People Engaged in Terrorist Acts

Blind Confidential has taken its longest vacation since we started nearly three years ago.  I started whirling about a set of ideas for a very cool, ultra gonzo piece that would wind my real life trips to South Beach, India and a few other places that Gonz, Samhara, BC and his wife and our usual cast of characters have visited over the past 3 months.  Then, the freaks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) had one of its Vice Presidents do an interview in which he rails against using animals as guide dogs because such a practice is too cruel to the critters.


The US Department of Homeland Security says that, among domestic terrorists, the radical wing of the environmental movement including members of ALF (Animal Liberation Front) and ELF (Environment Liberation Front)cause the greatest amount of domestic terrorism when Oklahoma City is removed from the equation.


Virtually every member of ALF arrested for various terrorist acts were also members of PETA.  Like the IRA, PETA serves as the public, political face while ALF makes the bombs.  Most horrible of all, ALF has recently started adding anti-personnel weapons to their weapons of property destruction.  Specifically, at a number of sites, bombs timed to explode 20 minutes after the first set were left behind to spray shrapnel at the responders (firemen, police and other public servants).  While I oppose the acts against property, learning that ALF is now going after firemen, guys who risk their lives to help us remain safe, is beyond my personal level of comprehension and, those of you who have read the gonzo stuff here know that my imagination can take me places rarely visited by regular people.


My fear is that some deranged grizzly bear hugger will try to sneak up on a guide dog school, liberate a bunch of sweet Labradors and torch the place, possibly hurting or even killing the people who work nights at such places. 


The PETA spokesman who talked so angrily about guide dogs also provided a list of misleading statements about people with vision impairment – including that we cannot tell if our dogs are healthy or not  and other statements that make us sound like we have major intellectual impairments.


So, from here on out, the world of Blind Confidential declares that PETA will stand for People Engaging in Terrorist Acts and challenges any PETA freak to a one on one debate with a person we select against one of their own in an online debate over the subject. 


Hence, we challenge any of you fruitcake terrorists to actually engage someone who actually knows how wonderful our guide dogs are and how terrific working animals have it when compared to pets who spend most days bored.


— End



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The message was checked by ESET NOD32 Antivirus.

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Eating an Elephant: Lost in the Supermarket

“I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily, I came in here for a special offer, guaranteed personality…”  The Clash


I briefly mentioned the supermarket accessibility problem in the first installment in the “Eating an Elephant” series but did so without describing the actual complexity of the issue and how I have no solution to proffer and, to the best of my knowledge, no one is researching this problem.  I hope that Will Pearson sends in a comment on the matter as he is far more expert in aspects of this topic than me.


At a glance, the confusion of a supermarket effects sighted people as well as those of us with a vision impairment.  The stores have thousands of products sorted by their similarity to other products with the exception of displays of items on sale and products receiving extra promotion.  These categorized items are distributed into aisles which contain packages of differing size, shape, color and prominence based upon how high or low they sit on a shelf.  The sighted person can grow overwhelmed at the sheer vastness of visual noise, the wide array of colors and the way marketing types invent packaging to mislead the consumer as to the size and/or shape of its contents.


The sighted person, although their attention might scramble a bit can, however, see that aisle four contains condiments and walk to it.  While in this section, they can also see that Wish Bone salad dressing is discounted and that Paul Newman’s is not and make the choice as to which they would prefer.  They can also easily find the highly recognizable Tabasco trademark bottle and the Progresso hot cherry peppers they enjoy on sandwiches.  This sighted customer may also see a new product with a promotional cardboard thing pointed at it and choose to give it a try.  They may also see an item they hadn’t thought about before making their list and pick it up on impulse.


The person with a profound to severe vision impairment, though, has an extremely different experience.  As I described in part one of this series, the customer service people at the store assign us a human to help us with the shopping.  These people vary in competence from illiterate to unable to speak a language I might understand even a little to very helpful.  Even the best shopping companion, though, will start with the question, “So, what do you want?”  A well prepared blink will have printed out a shopping list, the rest of us disorganized type are left to the wilds of the shopping experience.


Often, the answer to “What do you want to get?” is, “Lots of stuff.”  This means that our companion has no clue where to start and we can only begin by rattling off items we definitely know we need.


Now, let’s return to the condiment aisle example we used for our sighted friends.  In a manner of over simplification, we can imagine that each side of the aisle contains the same number of shelves and that each product has exactly the same amount of shelf space.  For our simplified example, we can view each product and variation thereof as having its own cubicle.  To keep the arithmetic simple, we’ll say that each side is five shelves high and 20 product cubicles per shelf.  Thus, we have 10 products on each shelf  – a massive simplification.


Like our sighted counterpart, we know we want salad dressing, Tabasco, maybe some Progresso cherry peppers (often the store is out of stock on these) and, like our sighted friends, we may want to try a new product or pick up an item on impulse.


So, we, the blind shopper is presented with 200 products and variations in the aisle and we may actually want to buy four or five items from this set.  How can our companion or possibly some as yet not invented bit of technology provide us with enough but not too much information about the items in the aisle?


If our companion or technology simply tells us everything in the aisle, we will somehow need to try to hold 200 separate offerings in short term memory.  This breaks the memory bank and the attention model all at once and such information overload can be discounted out of hand.


We can be told all of the categories of items in the aisle: salad dressing, hot sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, pickles and peppers, mustard, etc.  Again, we’ve a big list of items that have only a generic description and much of which we can recall from previous visits to the market.  So, we’re now getting a combination of too much data plus redundant information and we still haven’t found our first item.


Like our sighted friend, we want some thousand island salad dressing.  For this example we’ll say that I am especially fond of Paul Newman’s and don’t care about Wish Bone even if it is on sale.  I can tell my companion to get me the dressing I want and disregard all competitors.  If, however, I consider salad dressing generically, I may want the item on sale or even the Publix store brand to save a little money I need to tell my companion to list off the various brands and their prices – this is a boring and time consuming process that leads only to the selection of a single product.


The next item, Tabasco, is simple.  I tell my companion that I want the sauce in the Catholic family sized bottle as I use a lot of it.  The companion then asks, “Red or green?”  I know I prefer the red but what if it was a product with which I was less familiar?  Again, more time wasted determining which version of a single item I want.


The last two examples, a random item on sale and an impulse purchase provides the most complex of the problems.  There are two hundred items in this aisle, n items have sale tags (where n is a value between zero and a random figure less than 200) and all 200 minus the salad dressing and Tabasco sauce may fall into the impulse purchase category.  Once more, my companion can list all sale items, possibly a large number of items in a fairly large number of categories and to cover the impulse purchase, we need to return to the entire list minus the two items we’ve already selected.


Now, we can multiply our 200 items in the condiments aisle by the 20 aisles in the store and we have an incredibly overwhelming number of data points.  Remove the constraints I placed on the number of items per aisle and we have a very complex distribution of stuff we may need or want to buy.


With a companion, reading everything or even every category blows past short term memory limits and any attention model I’ve ever seen described for human beings.  How then can a human companion, far smarter than any technology that may be invented in the short term future, determine the balance between too much, too little and the Goldilocks amount of information the consumer with vision impairment needs and/or wants to hear.


Last week, as Susan, my lovely wife of 21 years, and I drove south from Cambridge back to our home in Florida we pulled off at an exit in South Carolina which had fast food joints on all four corners.  Susan made the executive decision that we would eat at McDonald’s; she did not tell me that we had choices nor, of course, did she tell me which choices we had.  One of the others was a Wendy’s, a crappy fast food place that I prefer over McDonald’s.  Susan made the assumption that fast food was generic and that I wouldn’t care or even have an opinion on which I may prefer which, in this case, was a fallacious assumption.  Susan has been married to a blink for 21 years and still hasn’t developed the knack of finding the proper middle ground level of information – how then can we expect a randomly assigned supermarket companion to have even the slightest clue what we do and do not want to hear.


The most frequently described technology possibility is based in RFID, a standard that has been due to replace UPC for a pretty long time.  With something like an RFID wand, the blind consumer can hear the items that they are near.  The user could turn such a device to “category” mode or “sale item” mode or any of a number of categories of information that can be held on the product’s RFID combined with augmentative data on the store’s Wi Fi system.  I still think this will provide too much information in a manner too complex to be truly useful but it seems to be the best idea I’ve heard so far.  The practicality, though, of getting every supermarket and product to retool their shop for such a system is probably not going to happen for a long time to come if ever.


What can we, as people with vision impairment, do to solve the supermarket problem in the time before someone invents and distributes a device that might solve the problem?  The first suggestion is to shop online and have one’s groceries delivered.  These online grocery services are not available in all parts of the US and, returning to the problem of the current screen reader UI paradigm of reading everything as a list, slogging through a web site with zounds of items will either take a really long time or will not do much to solve the sale item problem and little or nothing to help with impulse or new product purchases.  This, of course, has the benefit of saving one some money by putting up a wall to our potential impulses but it also leaves out the ability to discover items we may really enjoy.


Do any BC readers have any suggestions?  If so, please leave comments to further discussion.


— End

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A week or so ago, I wrote a BC item I called “Killer Combo” which
described how much I like working with Mobile GEO from Code Factory, a
Holux GPS receiver and an off-the-shelf Windows Mobile cell phone. I
neglected to include my one major complaint about the system, namely,
the earbud on the Jawbone.

Unlike most devices that use earbuds, the Jawbone comes with three
rubber earbud cover thingies in three sizes. I selected the smallest
of the bunch as earbuds always seem too big for my ear holes. Even
with the littlest one, the bud pops out with the slightest
provocation. This happens with virtually all earbuds that I have tried
from everything they come with ranging from my iPod Nano to my cell
phone and beyond. Fortunately, the Jawbone also has one of those loops
that wrap around one’s ear so when it tries to escape, I can rely on
its tether to avoid losing the pricey little device.

Over the past few days I’ve performed an entirely unscientific survey
of every one I talked to on the phone. I asked them the question,
“What do you think about earbuds?”

The answers ranged from, “Can’t stand them, if they come with a new
toy I just toss them in a drawer and use my Bose headphones,” to, “I
can never keep them in my ears,” to “I hate the fucking things.” I had
about a dozen more answers to my question and virtually all were

Do my friends, family and co-workers all have exceptionally odd ear
holes? Are we all using our earbuds incorrectly? Does anyone actually
like these things that seem to come included with every item I buy
that makes a sound? Should I start a support group for people with
mutant ear holes?

Inquiring minds want to know…

– End

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Long-term Blind Confidential readers and those who know about my work
with the League for Programming Freedom, an organization I co-founded
with my friend Richard Stallman largely to fight against Apple
Computer and its assertion that the user interface, look and feel if
you like, of a computer program could be copyrighted. As much as
automobiles all present the basics of their user interface: steering
wheel, gas pedal, clutch, etc. in the same places , it only makes
sense that commonly used functions and features of computer programs
(cut, copy, paste, for example, all reside beneath the edit menu and
use the Control C, X, and V keystrokes respectively). We won the “look
and “feel battle when the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor
of Borland in its battle with Lotus Over common keystrokes between
Quatro Pro and 1-2-3.

More recently, I have written about how I feel that Apple has sought
patent protection for inventions that fall beneath my opinion of a
standard of uniqueness and, because, on principle, I oppose virtually
all software patents (readers interested in the subject should search
on “software patents” on this blog as I’ve written extensively on the
matter). Apple is by no means the worst offender in the world of
intellectual property law abuse But one patent in particular, the one
that covers synthesizing speech on a desktop type computer and moving
it on to a portable media device, effectively gives Apple a monopoly
on the techniques used to make the iPod nano accessible. As I’ve also
written about Freedom Scientific, there is far too much work to do in
order to eat more of our elephant . Thus, I find that these
intellectual property filings and battles waste time, money and
bandwidth that could be applied to actual innovation in this field.
Also, maintaining priority over a novel concept that would benefit
numerous other access technology products punishes the users for
having selected one brand of product over another.

Apple has not entirely changed its ways nor has it entirely satisfied
my perfectionist do you product accessibility. To whit, the incredibly
popular iPhone was released to the general public without a single
feature that I could find of value to a person with a severe, profound
or total vision impairment. More than annoying me, this phone stands
in direct violation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act.
Apple is not alone in releasing new handsets with little or no
accessible features but as I said above, I take a perfectionist few
and want all products to be released to the general public in
compliance with the laws of our nation without requiring a legal
battle or months of negotiations between an advocacy group and a
handset manufacturer. With the iPhone, Apple released many highly
innovative features – unfortunately nothing to comply with 255 as
regards people with vision Impairment.

The cost of a long history of squabbling with Apple over the issues
above and because they got into the screen reader game fairly late, I
felt the need to preface this article by listing and explaining how I
have made the jump from disliking Apple almost purely unprincipled to
now using my Macintosh for most of my daily tasks. Plain and simply, a
Macintosh running its native voiceover screen reader , in many places,
outperforms its cousins on the Microsoft Windows platforms.

I have yet to find a single application written for Macintosh Leopard
edition that did not work mostly if not entirely with voiceover. The
problems I have encountered, including in Mac Speech, the software I’m
using to dictate Blind Confidential articles these days, has some
bugs, mostly unlabeled buttons and such, with regard to how they
communicate with voiceover. MacSpeech has a few other bugs that are
very annoying but have nothing to do with how well it works with
voiceover and open office.

For years, the Office suites have been a major battleground in the
screen reader wars. I am happy to report to you my readers that works tremendously well with voiceover and, excepting a
few of the very cool JAWS features, can be considered as a full
replacement for Microsoft Office in most situations. Open office can
read or write to about as many file formats as ‘Ive ever seen in a
single program which makes sharing files among coworkers who may elect
to use a different office program easier than ever.

Those of you who know me, also know I spent a tremendous amount of
time writing. For years, I believed that Microsoft Word was the only
writing tool with enough horsepower to handle everything I need. MS
Word indeed possesses a huge array of really excellent features for
people who write, edit and format large documents the Open Office word
processor, however competes strongly with Microsoft Word on features
and, when using voiceover, it is much faster than Word with JAWS on a
Windows box. As a matter of full disclosure, all the writing I do on a
Macintosh is done using the bottom of the line, 13 inch MacBoOk; ‘Ive
used JAWS on literally dozens of different computers and on my
fastest, a 64-bit Vista desktop, Microsoft Word along with JAWS is
profoundly slower than open office with voiceover on my Macintosh.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Open Office comes with no cost
beyond the time it takes to download, install and familiarize oneself
with the software. Using voice over, open office functions similarly
to Microsoft Word with JAWS on a Windows machine. Thus, the Office
suite transition from PC to a Macintosh is quite simple in this area.

Other programs with analogs on Windows machines perform equally well
or better ˆƒ on a Macintosh running voiceover than they do with JAWS.
This is due at at least in part to the excellent accessibility API
built into Macintosh OSX that effectively makes any standard control
accessible to voiceover. Programs like Skype and various other
programs that I use on both platforms work straight out of the box
with Macintosh but, as a JAWS user, I often have to wait for a
volunteer to write scripts to make a bit of software usable in a
comfortable matter. Some people have told me that one can use
AppleScript to automate voiceover and to enhance its ability to
communicate with other applications; I only know of this through
anecdote and have not seen any demonstrable evidence that this is
possible. There are a few places, especially in the open office
spreadsheet or I would like to make some of the dialogues available in
JAWS work with voiceover as well. Anyone who knows of how AppleScript
can be used in this way, please write to me privately so we may figure
out how to make these augmentations available to Macintosh users.

The strength of the Macintosh Accessibility API shows up all over the
place. On both my Mac and my PC, I use VMWare to run my Ubuntu
distribution to get my job done. VMWare with JOBS requires a lot of
poking around with the review cursor as buttons and other things one
needs to control the program are not recognized as anything more than
a graphic with some text on it by he When news screen readers. On the
contrary, though, I can use this virtual machine host with voiceover
without ever having to resort to some kind of kludge.

After using voiceover for a while, one learns to expect nearly
flawless performance in most applications that one throws at it. In
fact, when one encounters a dialogue, control or other elements with
which they want to interact and find that it does not work properly
with voiceover they tend to feel a bit surprised. In nearly every
application ‘Ive tried so far, accessibility problems are quite rare.
This is, however, not to say that voiceover hasn’t its faults.

One area in which JAWS, Window-Eyes and System Access all outperform
voiceover is in their interfaces to Web browsers. Voiceover uses an
object navigation model which, in applications, works tremendously
well. In some websites and other HTML content, the voiceover
navigation paradigm performs admirably ;Unfortunately, these sites are
outnumbered by those that are less well behaved. The Windows-Based
screen readers handle frames in a number of other common Web
constructs in a manner far better than does the current version of
voiceover. Having watched the tremendous pace THAT the voiceover team
improves the product, though, I feel confident that their web
interface will catch up and possibly even surpass interface’ses we
have grown accustomed to on Windows as, for all intents and purposes,
the “virtual “buffer technique of screen reader Web browsing ‘hasn’t
changed in nine or 10 years – an eternity in the world of high

I could go on with a laundry list of things that I really like about
voiceover and also present a much shorter list of bugs and other
annoyances but that would take up time and space that I can better use
for other purposes.

We should also spend a little time considering the newly accessible
iPod Nano. I picked up one of these at Best By for something around
$150 and find that I use it far more frequently than I had
anticipated. It takes a bit of practice to grow accustomed to gliding
‘ones finger on the device to scroll through menus, playlists,
podcasts, etc. once you get the knack of it you will appreciate a
feature rich and very well-designed portable media player. One of the
‘iPods strongest features is its tight integration with the iTunes
program on both Macintosh and Windows. To go into all of the features
available in this combination would have to be an article of its own
but suffice it to say that there is very little that one would want to
do with the media player/media software combination that is not
available with a Nano and iTunes

How does the ascendancy of Apple accessibility help us eat more of our

For one, we have the price performance ratio compared between the
Windows platforms and the Macintosh. A frugal consumer can find his
way to the Dell Outlet store on their website. Here, a blind consumer
who ‘doesn’t care about high-speed graphics were any of the other
expensive new features necessary for heavy-duty multimedia use, can
buy a very usable computer for under $400. Adding in monitor, printer,
scanner and/or other peripheral the user may want will add to this
price but only in so far as the user feels the need for such extras.
This would all be a great price for her system from a company that
provides a full warranty to the items in its Outlet store if the user
did not also have to purchase their access technology. JAWS, the de
facto standard on Windows systems, costs between 900 and 1100 dollars,
depending upon whether the user needs the professional version or not.
Window-Eyes Runs about $900 and System Access comes in at below $500.
So, a person with vision impairment needs to spend at least $1000 to
run a $400 computer purchased an outlet store. If this user wants a
laptop, they can add 252 of $300 to the overall price system.

The lowest priced new Macintosh is a desktop model they call the
“Mini” which retails for approximately $600. One must then also
purchase a monitor and possibly a keyboard as the Many ships in a
fairly bare-bones configuration. There are various places online where
one can find a used or refurbished Macintosh with a guarantee that can
run the Leopard version of OSX with plenty of horsepower a screen
reader and lots of other applications , making the overall cost
benefit of a Mac even greater.

Once one gets their new Macintosh and plugs it into an outlet, they
can press the on button and simply wait. A sighted person would see
the welcome dialog and can start interacting immediately; on the other
hand, we blinks only need to wait a few seconds and the Macintosh will
launch voiceover and start talking immediately. Microsoft Windows has
Narrator, a minimalist screen access program that, if one knows the
appropriate keystroke, they can launch it during the installation
process. The automatic way the Macintosh handles the situation,
however, is as ‘we’ve come to expect from Apple, a really elegant

We should also not overlook that voiceover is a fully featured screen
reader and can be used in virtually every application the user may
want to employ in the future. Narrator is designed to help the user
through the installation process and provide enough functionality for
them to install one of the pricey Windows screen readers.

The combination of really excellent accessibility to most programs at
no extra charge means that voiceover moves our elephant digestion a
bit further as he tosses down the gauntlet to the other operating
system vendors to put up or shut up as regards out-of-the-box
universal accessibility.


I would like to especially thank my friend Gabe Vega, the blind
Macintosh guru, who first got me interested in trying a Mac with
VoiceOver and, since then, has been a terrific source of information
whenever I had difficulties along the learning curve. Gabe runs an AT
consulting company and he will hopefully post his business contact
information as a comment to this article so others can avail
themselves of his services.

I rarely edit a BC post after it has been put online. As I’m using
MacSpeech, though, I find that I get a lot more errors than I do with
Dragon Dictate on XP or the native dictation facility built into
Vista. Some of this has to do with my Windows based dictation
solutions having been better trained but other mistakes are bugs in
MacSpeech (for instance, for no reason apparent to me, everytime I use
a contraction, the apostrophy appears before the rest of the word so
“didn’t” becomes “‘didnt” which is pretty ugly). So, I’ve smoothed
out as much of the text as I could without changing the article much
from its original post yesterday.

This month’s AccessWorld from AFB has a review of VoiceOver featured.
It is a nicely written article and one I would recommend to BC readers
interested in learning more about Mac accessibility.

– End

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Killer Combo

Blind Confidential has devoted a lot of time to GPS Programs and
how people with vision impairment can use them. Recently, I’ve been
using a combination of three off-the-shelf products along with Mobile
Geo from Code Factory. Over the coming weeks,
I will write three or four pieces about various GPS solutions
available today for people with vision impairment. These will include
Mobile Geo from Code Factory, Wayfinder Access and the free Lodestone
available for the Symbian platform.

This article, however, will describe a collection of gadgets that I’ve
assembled which, in my opinion, makes using a talking GPS system very
comfortable for pedestrian travel. I will briefly touch upon some of
the features in Mobile Geo and a comprehensive survey of its features
and functions will come at a later piece in which I compare it to the
other software products I mentioned above.

The first of the off-the-shelf products necessary to have for a
comfortable talking navigation experience is either a Windows Mobile
Smart phone or a Symbian smart phone. Mobile Geo runs on Windows Mobile
handsets and the other two need Symbian phones. For purposes of
this rather informal first round of tests, I used a T-Mobile Dash, a
phone I’ve been using for about two years now. In this article, the
handset has little importance as I’m not comparing a performance of
one system versus another. In the subsequent articles, the Symbian
products will have a distinct advantage because they will be run on a
brand-new and very high-end Nokia phone.

The second item I added to the collection is a GPS receiver from
Holux, the M1200, an adorable little device that weighs no more than a few grams
and, in a wide open space, can gather data from 20 or more different
sattelites. This receiver communicates with the handset via Bluetooth
and performs very well while sitting in a pocket of a warm winter
coat. My only criticism of this device is that it has horrible
documentation. The package includes a mini cd containing the manual
and quick-start guide – upon opening the box, you should take this cd
and throw it away immediately as reading any of its contents will do
nothing more than cause confusion. The Holux receiver has only one
control, and on off switch. Pushing the switch up toward the keychain
loop turns it on; pushing it in the opposite direction turns it off.
You now have all the information you need to use this device

The third item is the Jawbone Bluetooth earbud-type headset available
at your local Best Buy for about $100. This remarkable little item pops
into one of your ears with its other end, about an inch and a half
forward, resting against your cheek. Unlike most, if not all, other
Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones, the Jawbone has no microphone
in the traditional sense of the word. A part of it that rests against
your cheek picks up the vibrations from your jaw as you speak and
translates it into audio information – effectively functioning like a
microphone but without taking up any external noise. While I
haven’t tested this particular claim, the Jawbone marketing materials
say that one can use it in an automobile with its windows open at over
50 mph and be heard clearly by the person to whom you are speaking.

With all three of these gadgets turned on and the Code Factory
software running on my handset, I set off to explore how well it
worked here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before trying any of the
numerous features available in Mobile Geo, I just launched it and
started walking around the neighborhood with my dog. I know this area
very well so I did not need any mapping and routing information. The
default spoken data was very helpful in that I did not have to keep
track of how many streets I had crossed to know how far I had walked,
and how near I was to a turn I needed to make.

The default point of interest (POI) database contains a remarkably
large number of very useful bits of information about one’s
surroundings. As I walked through Harvard Yard, individual buildings
and even some statues were announced as I approached them. As wide-
open spaces like the Yard tend to be problematic for GPS systems as
there are no roads but, rather, winding paths, finding Widener Library
seemed virtually impossible with other software I have tried in the
past which, their vendors claimed, was the result of my moving at less
than 5 mph. Even in the company of my guide dog, I don’t spend much
time running fast enough for the other GPS software to calculate a
heading that it can use to accurately locate something on the ground.
The Code Factory and Sendero teams should be commended for their
excellent progress in making GPS very useful at pedestrian speeds.

After spending time with some friends in Harvard Square, I set the
Mobile Geo software to find my home. It took a little while to
calculate a relatively simple route, but each turn it told me to make
was dead on pan. Unlike many other GPS programs, it did a terrific job
of ignoring one-way streets as such directional information is of no
value to a pedestrian.

The combination of the three off-the-shelf hardware products and
Mobile Geo has been making my walks around town less stressful as I
needn’t constantly keep track of where my dog and I are at any given
moment. I have not thoroughly tested all of its features nor have I
spent much time with either of the Symbian solutions so I cannot
provide detailed comparison information or even a thorough description
of this particular GPS software yet. As I stated at the top of this
article, I will be working with three different GPS programs and will
be writing about them in a more formal and comparative matter. I can,
however, recommend Mobile Geo based on my experience with it thus far.


This is the first Blind Confidential article that I’ve written using
MacSpeech Dictate and Open Office on my Macintosh. Thus, if there are
peculiar homophones or odd word combinations that, when spoken
together quickly might sound like a word, and that the voice recognition
software misunderstood, please forgive me as my profile in this
dictation product has not had a lot of training and, consequently,
will probably make a number of mistakes. I will go through and do some
manual editing, but homophones cause difficulty for a blind person
listening to text via a speech synthesizer, and without the laborious
and obviously tedious task of spelling every single word in the
document, I will have no easy way of knowing which version of a word
did the dictation program choose to use.


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